Health Canada wins 3rd annual
Code of Silence Award

VANCOUVER (9 May 2004 /CNW) -- The Canadian Association of Journalists has awarded Health Canada its third annual Code of Silence Award, which recognizes the most secretive government department in Canada.

"Government officials everywhere hide vital information that they think might embarrass them, their departments or their political leaders," CAJ president Paul Schneidereit said in announcing the booby prize. "This award is presented to honour them for their efforts to prevent open government."

"Our finalists have shown remarkable zeal in suppressing information, from concealing vital data about dangerous drugs to snooping through a reporter's bedroom on a witch hunt for whistleblowers."

The winner was announced Saturday as part of the CAJ awards ceremony during the Association's 26th national conference. The Code of Silence award a plaque featuring a padlock hanging from chains will be kept in safety on behalf of the health department, which declined to send a representative to accept it.

Over a period of more than five years Health Canada denied any meaningful access to a database of prescription drugs that could harm or even kill Canadians. The department refused to release information on adverse drug reactions in a format that would allow researchers to study the records electronically in order to spot trends and identify which drugs are causing problems. For more than five years he department would only release the information in a computer format that prevents the kind of analysis that could uncover information of vital public interest. Adverse drug reaction data like this is readily available in the U.S. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration routinely makes such data available on its Web site.

The parliamentary all-party standing committee on health eventually slammed the department for failing to effectively protect Canadians who take prescription drugs. The committee said the manner in which drugs are tested and approved is too secretive, in large part due to excessive concerns about the commercial interests of the drug companies. Health Canada finally relented more than five years after it was challenged.

This year's other nominees were:

- The New Brunswick Department of Health and Wellness, for stonewalling for more than a year on freedom of information requests to make public two commissioned studies on health care resources. After a court appeal, an appeal to the ombudsman and a confidential draft of one report was leaked, the minister, Elvy Robichaud, still refused to make the two documents public, saying, referring to the entire population, "you don't need 700,000 people to do the planning." Only after a public outcry over his comments and a pending ombudsman's ruling did the minister finally release the two reports on future health planning.

- The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for their efforts to stifle the use of confidential sources by journalists in Canada. After a prolonged court battle in which the RCMP sought to obtain materials sent to National Post investigative reporter Andrew McIntosh in the Shawinigate affair, in order to try to identify who had sent the documents, the Ontario Superior Court ruled against the police, stating confidential sources were an indispensable means with which journalists inform the public in a democracy. The same day of the court ruling, the RCMP raided the home of Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill under the Security Information Act, in search of leaked secret documents related to the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen deported to Syria by U.S. authorities.

- The government of Alberta, for its handling of a freedom of information request involving a defamation suit against former provincial cabinet minister Stockwell Day. After spending nearly $800,000 defending Day in the lawsuit, a judge found the province attempted to manipulate public opinion by selectively releasing documents on the government's actions sought under the Freedom of Information Act. When The Globe and Mail and the opposition Liberals requested more documents, they were told they would each be charged an additional $60,000. Even after Justice Terrence McMahon of the Alberta Court of Queens Bench drastically lowered the fees and ordered the government to comply, the Alberta Department of Justice released mainly old newspaper clippings and other documents of little journalistic value.

- The city council of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, for refusing to open committee meetings to the media. Top courts in several provinces have ruled that such meetings should be open to the public, but the municipal council continues to deny reporters access to the city's committee sessions. The CBC is now fighting the secretive policy.

Last year's winner was the Nova Scotia government for a year-long pattern of secrecy, including instituting the highest fees in the country for access to information requests. The result was a sharp decrease in the number of requests under the Act. Prior winners also include the federal Department of Justice for giving itself the power to override the Access to Information Act and withhold any information relating to international relations, national security or defence it deems sensitive; and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment for withholding information about the Walkerton water tragedy that claimed seven lives and sickened thousands more following contamination of the town's water system.

The Canadian Association of Journalists is a professional organization with 1,300 members across Canada. The CAJ's primary roles are public interest advocacy work and quality professional development for journalists.

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